"100 Beautiful Girls!" beckoned the blinking marquee at the downtown dance hall. Inside, however, as Latin rhythms blared from the dance floor, only a smattering of hostesses could be seen entertaining their customers at the soft-drink bar.
Dating back decades to the dime-a-dance era, clubs like this one have come to cater to a primarily Latino clientele and to depend on the illegal immigrant work force for their hostesses.
But the new immigration law, which imposes sanctions on employers who hire illegal aliens, has depleted the supply of taxi dancers.
Accordingly, five of the clubs recently filed a request with authorities for permission to import more than 500 temporary foreign workers fluent in Spanish and adept at Latin dancing.
The application comes at a time when the Immigration and Naturalization Service is considering requests from a number of industries--in particular Southern California's garment manufacturers--for special permission to import temporary foreign workers to replace those lost under the new immigration restrictions.
But the application to import taxi-dancers has caught government officials and immigrant rights advocates by surprise.
"Kind of strange," one observer said. "A little bit unbelievable," another said. Others just laughed.
Labor Department officials have recommended that the petition be denied, but that decision is not final.
"I think this is getting to the point of ridiculousness," said Linda Wong of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Hers is one of several community groups, as well as immigration and labor officials, garment industry manufacturers and labor leaders, scheduled to testify today at an Assembly hearing in Los Angeles on the temporary foreign workers issue. The hearing is before a subcommittee of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee that has been monitoring the effect of the new immigration law on the state employment picture.
When Wong stopped laughing, she labeled the dance clubs' request one of the more extreme examples of what she and other immigrants' rights and organized labor groups fear may be a trend among employers to circumvent the law in an attempt to maintain a "legal" cheap immigrant labor force.
The request from club owners for the labor exemption is only the most unusual of many--primarily from Los Angeles' garment industry--that have been filed by employers trying to replace lost workers. The Assembly subcommittee hearing will focus on garment industry employers who thus far have filed 25 requests for more than 300 temporary foreign workers, according to Jeffrey Ruch, counsel to the committee.
At least one Los Angeles garment factory has so far won preliminary approval to bring in 40 workers from the Philippines for seven months, he said.
Jerry McFetridge, a committee consultant, who termed the dance hall requests "a little bit unbelievable," said the subcommittee "will be looking to see whether there are true (labor) shortages . . . or whether it's a ruse to get cheaper workers into the country." He added that the subcommittee will also look into allegations that contracts governing foreign workers will relegate them to an "almost chattel status."
Union officials oppose the importing of workers on the grounds that the arrangement would depress wages, promote poor working conditions and hamper efforts to unionize garment workers.
According to government officials, this would mark the first time large groups of unskilled workers would be brought legally to the United States to work in an urban setting. Before the new immigration law, the provision had mostly been used for allowing individuals, such as entertainers, into the country.
While the new law sets up a quicker mechanism for importing temporary agricultural workers, temporary urban workers are addressed under the regular immigration law, according to immigration officials.
Requests to import urban workers are filed with the state Department of Employment Development and forwarded to the U.S. Department of Labor. The process is set up to determine whether the jobs are, indeed, temporary; whether a lack of available, qualified U.S. workers exists; and whether employers offer prevailing wages and working conditions. A final determination is made by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The dance halls' requests were recommended for denial primarily because the jobs did not meet the definition of "temporary," according to Jane Ramos of the Labor Department's alien certification unit in San Francisco. Ramos, who termed the requests from the dance halls as "kind of strange," said the agency "did not spend a lot of time" arriving at its determination.
Though problems involving prostitution, pandering and lewd conduct occasionally arise at the clubs, for the most part they are law abiding, according to Dennis Humphry, an investigator with the Police Commission, which licenses the dance establishments.